Perfect Sound Forever


By Marko Vukusic
(December 2009)

The diversity and richness of Croatian folk music is such a wonder for such a tiny land. Its musical heritage is very rich and diverse for such a small country (123rd by size in the world). Different regions have their own music tradition, specific in style and life. Reasons for this diversity can partially be found in the geographical position of Croatia at the meeting point (or clash-point, which was sadly very often the case) of different cultures and civilizations. Roman, Slavic, Turkish, German and Hungarian influences made their mark on Croatian folk music. These influences have been incorporated into the DNA of the people who live on this beautiful and turbulent part of the world, creating unique musical styles that tell stories and express the feelings of their ancestors.

Unfortunately, a big part of this tradition is not appreciated enough even in its own country. Contemporary Croatian music lovers, who seem to embrace every popular world music trend from Cubana to Irish or African music, tend to underrate or ignore their own folk music. Luckily, old music styles and songs are saved by enthusiasts who stay faithful to their passion through thick and thin. The most exciting musicians that appeared in Croatia in recent time are the ones who recognize their own culture and history, and merge them with dominant popular music of our time. Maybe some day, Ry Cooder will dig himself out of his musical explorations and pop up in Croatia. Until then, there are still enough people to keep the Croatian folk music flame burning.

But here I would like to talk about the style that has recently enjoyed mass popularity at home, and has often been marked as the one which could become worldwide music brand from Croatia. It is called klapa's singing or singing in klapa, and it comes from the most musical of all of Croatia's singing regions Dalmatia.


The region of Dalmatia lies on the Adriatic Sea and has one the most beautiful coastlines in the world with hundreds of islands. Many of the cities were built in the ancient times of the Roman Empire, while some of them have, in greater or lesser degree, preserved their ancient looks to this day. Croats settled here in the 7th century AD and had their kingdom in the early days, but for almost a thousand years, until the end of the 20th century, different foreign rulers have changed the place. The borders and autonomy of Croatia and its regions have often been rearranged under Hungarian, Venetian, Ottoman, Habsburg, Napoleon, Austrian, German, Italian and Serbian reigns and conquests.

The term "klapa" indicates a group of friends (similar to a gang or a band). In music this is the name for a group of people singing together. The singing is mainly a cappella, but it can also be discreetly accompanied by some instruments, like a guitar or mandolin. Klapas are usually formed by friends from the same town or street. Almost every Dalmatian town has its own klapa and sometimes many more of them.

The origins of klapa singing can be traced into Middle Ages when secular elements of language and songs found their way into the church and mixed with sacred monotonous Gregorian chants. Klapa singing adapted its homo-phonic form, as it is known today, during the 19th and 20th century with stronger Mediterranean (Italian in particular) influences.

The number of singers in klapa can vary, but it is usually between five and eight. Singers assume their roles of first (lead) tenor, second tenor, baritone and bass. The number of singers at each position can also vary, but klapa usually has only one lead tenor. The singers depend on each other for example, the deeper the bass is, the tenor can then sing his role with less effort. Tenors usually sing in high-pitched intonations, while the basses "counter" them. The best bass singers are described as "profound bass." The role of the baritones is to "give oil to a song." The first tenor usually starts the distinct melody, while the others sing in harmony, creating chords (this is basically the definition of the melody-dominated homophony). The leading melody can be completely new to other singers, forcing them to improvise within their voice position. Mixed (male and female) and all-female klapas have also appeared lately, giving new look to the old style. The goal of the singers is to achieve best possible harmony and fusion of their voices. This is accomplished through constant practice and understanding of each other's characteristics and possibilities. The longer the klapa stays together, the better it gets. The excellence of the performance can differ depending on a feeling developed between singers at a specific moment. Klapas compete with each others at klapa gatherings, of which the most famous is held each year during the summer in the town of Omis, near Split.

The troubled times and heavy life of Dalmatian people are reflected in the common themes of klapa songs. Of course, different people with their own distinct culture have always mixed with the local population, but one thing was usually (with notable exceptions) constant: rulers and aristocrats were foreigners, while domicile people were predetermined to a hard life of soldiers, sailors, fishermen and farmers on the notoriously unfertile ground there. So people dealt with their heartaches and hardships through a song, singing about what was in their heart, even taboo themes like social and national injustice or innuendos about love and sex. Lighter, mocking and gliber songs have also been part of the tradition. Sacred themes have maintained a big part of the repertoire too. A certain feeling of spirituality is the key ingredient of every klapa song. The feelings of Dalmatian people, described through the words and melodies of klapa songs, help to weave a better picture of Dalmatian history.

Actually, almost any song can become a klapa song, but not every group of singers can become a klapa. A klapa is determined by its ethnographical and geographical elements as much as by its singing technique. The singers are usually dressed in indigenous suits of their town.

Recently, klapas have started to do covers of modern popular Dalmatian music. Dalmatian pop music has developed in the last fifty years under the enormous influence of Italian popular music, Festival della Canzone Italiana in Sanremo in particular. The Sanremo festival was the model after which many Croatian festivals were formed.

Since modern music has been incorporated into the repertoires of klapas, klapa singing has become so popular that these concerts have been held in stadiums in front of the fifty thousand people. That popularity of course has both positive and negative sides. On the negative side, as usual, the rise in quantity has led to a dispersion of quality. Some of the popular "klapas" have original klapa elements just as a shell to which they add ingredients, like instruments and themes of the songs, which satisfy taste of their audience. Stadiums and big sport halls are not best way to listen to a klapa either. Klapa's singing is best enjoyed in a space which has an intimate atmosphere and excellent acoustics. Old squares surrounded by stone houses in Dalmatian towns are good example of that kind of authentic space. On the positive side, more and more young people show interest in this traditional kind of music, and they are starting their own klapas. With that process, Dalmatian folklore continues to be created, not closed in some historical archive. Also, some old klapa legends have finally enjoyed recognition after years of being neglected.

To enjoy the music of klapa, you don't need to understand Croatian language. The human voice is the most wonderful and versatile of all music instruments. If you immerse yourself into the harmony of klapa singers and the rhythm of words, your soul will be healed, your mind eased and your heart filled. You will be able to feel their emotions and history.

So where can you find this beautiful and truly authentic music? Well, if you cannot afford to visit Croatia and Omis, or find any klapa CD's in your local store, the good old Internet is a fine place to start. And don't be too surprised if you soon see picture of Mister Cooder smiling from the shore of Adriatic Sea.


Web sites:

Performers to begin with:

Some Croatian folk performers (other than Klapa music):

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